A Note: In this blog, I truly try to focus on matters of Christian discipleship. While I am very open and enthusiastic about my own theological location in the Religious Society of Friends (Quakers), I prefer not to use this space to engage in Quaker “inside baseball”: I want to speak to and with faithful people beyond my tiny corner of the Church. The below letter represents a continuation of that commitment, as the concerns raised about decisionmaking with insufficient divine guidance are not unique to Friends. But it also represents a departure, as the particulars described below are specific to the Friends of New York Yearly Meeting (NYYM). Some NYYM Friends have felt led to endorse the concerns I lift up below, and to ask for a called meeting to discern a path forward as a worshiping body led by the Spirit. If you are a Friend in NYYM who shares these concerns and would like to join that list, which you can view here, please add your name and monthly meeting in the comments below. And if you would like to learn more about my ministry among Friends, please click here.
Another note : The “post comment” button is white on white, but if you click above where it says “Notify me of new comments via email,” you should see the button appear. Alternatively, you should be able to comment in the WordPress app.
Dear Friends –
A little over a year ago, New York Yearly Meeting took up discernment of a “Draft Statement on Becoming an Anti-Racist Faith Community.” Though its authors were unknown and it did not arise from any committee, the statement was fast-tracked to the floor of business meeting at Summer Sessions, where it was agreed that we would engage in a yearly meeting-wide discernment process. Though the discernment process never materialized, a webpage dedicated to the Draft Statement was launched, it was routinely published in the our online newsletter, and discussion sessions were created – not to discern whether the yearly meeting should adopt the draft statement, but to share our reactions to it and how we could incorporate into our faith lives as Friends. Effectively, the statement, though nominally a draft, was treated as though it had been discerned and adopted. This de facto adoption of the Draft Statement continued until a group of Friends of various racial backgrounds and theologies came together over many months and discerned that integrity demanded that the process we adopted as a yearly meeting be followed. This was expressed lovingly but firmly, and repeatedly, to NYYM leadership. Eventually, the weekly promotion of the statement tapered off; the concerns expressed by NYYM Friends, both individuals and monthly meetings, were acknowledged; and work finally began on building the discernment process we approved as a yearly meeting. This discernment process is still “under construction”; I have heard nothing about when, how or if the yearly meeting will roll out the process so that we can actually engage with the statement as a body.
Then, about six months ago, another statement came before our yearly meeting, “An Urgent Call to the Religious Society of Friends.” The Urgent Call was drafted by a collection of prominent Friends from yearly meetings concentrated in the northeast and disseminated throughout United States Quaker networks. It was published only a handful of weeks before our NYYM Summer Sessions; in fact, several committees donated their meeting time at summer sessions so that the Urgent Call could be considered by our yearly meeting. I was looking forward to the opportunity to discern God’s will together as a worshiping body at my first in-person Summer Sessions experience, to really “do” Quakerism together, listening for the Spirit’s guidance on such important issues as the future of our democracy and how we, as Friends, are called to respond to the threat it is under. Instead, I found that the Urgent Call had already been endorsed on behalf of the yearly meeting. While we were “considering” it as a yearly meeting, our discernment was not around the decision of whether to adopt the Urgent Call, but how to incorporate it into our lives. The decision of whether to adopt it was not entrusted to dozens or hundreds of NYYM Friends being led by the Spirit. Instead, it was made by two individuals. I am 100% sure that they were acting thoughtfully and prayerfully. However, they nonetheless usurped the opportunity for NYYM Friends to seek God’s voice together, instead putting us in our current position of having our yearly meeting publicly endorse a document for which unity in the Spirit was never sought and manifestly does not exist.
And now, just a few weeks ago, a “Statement on Sexual and Reproductive Services” appeared in our online newsletter, approved by Quaker Earthcare Witness. This statement, which was issued by the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population (IUSSP), condemns the Supreme Court decision overturning Roe v. Wade and states that “restricting access to…abortion, will adversely impact the health and well-being of people and their families.” Quaker Earthcare Witness asks Friends meetings to issue statements supporting the IUSSP’s declaration. I would prefer to set aside the tenuous connection between Earthcare and abortion, since the only relationship I can think of is using abortion as population control for the good of the environment – a horrifying thought. Many Friends, myself included, believe strongly that God and our peace testimony call us to promote and protect human life and human dignity, from the earliest stages of human development when a growing baby is hidden in the womb to natural death, however that may come. It struck me as troubling that a committee dedicated to protecting all of creation was calling on Friends to speak forcefully for the unrestricted right to abort developing humans – not by reference to traditional Quaker faith and practice, not by reference to the “cloud of witnesses,” not by reference to the Bible or the early Church or even to the philosophy or sacred traditions of other faiths or cultures. No, we are being called to speak forcefully on the mysteries of life and creation on the sole weight and spiritual authority of … the International Union for the Scientific Study of Population.
First, a document created by a group of anonymous NYYM Friends was treated as endorsed without proper corporate discernment. Then, a document created by individual Quakers from outside our yearly meeting was actually endorsed without any corporate discernment. Now, our monthly meetings are being called to “consider issuing a statement of support” for a document that, though endorsed by a Quaker group, has no recognizable Quaker content – a call made with no mention made of corporate discernment, or faithfulness, or what it means to live a life grounded in the Spirit.
I might be a “bad Friend” to quote Ian Fleming, author of the James Bond series, but I have a feeling he was onto something in Goldfinger: “Once is happenstance. Twice is coincidence. Third time it’s enemy action.” Our enemy is spiritual, not any creature of flesh and blood, but the same principle applies.
Friends, the Adversary is afoot in our yearly meeting and is using the cover of these essential, emotional and timely issues to seduce us away from our one true Love – the Spirit of God who is always present to comfort and always ready to guide. The Deceiver cries, “Urgent! Disaster is coming! There is no time for the niceties of Quaker process – we must act now!” But “Quaker process” isn’t an exercise in bureaucratic box-checking. Quaker process is listening for the voice of God together, the very foundation of our faith. What use is it to be antiracist if we become anti-Spirit along the way? What have we gained by saving democracy if in doing so we abandon the Kingdom of Heaven? What victory do we win in condemning the actions of the Supreme Court if, by acting in our own will and way rather than walking in the Light of Christ, we condemn ourselves in the process?
Each one of these outwardly unrelated happenings is a symptom of the same disease – a reliance on our own judgment and priorities rather than on divine guidance. I no longer have the energy to battle symptoms, but it is more urgent than ever that we fight the underlying disease, because without a cure, we are lost. The stream of “statements” and “calls” and “declarations” will continue, and our yearly meeting will continue to embrace them, until and unless we return to the Source of all our power and strength. Without that Source, we will continue running after every issue that grabs our attention, flitting in turn to every cause, faithful to none of them – because none of them will be seasoned and embraced with the conviction that only comes from knowing that God has called us and we have no choice but to follow.
I don’t have a lot of familiarity with NYYM particularly, but could this be an outcome of a longtime moving away from a focus on “the pioneer and perfecter of our faith” towards a less focused spirituality increasingly drawing on secular sources?
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Oh Adria, this so speaks to my condition and to the condition of our faith (or lack thereof) as Friends of every division. I am familiar with two out of the three examples you cite, and with others more local to the NW. How can we gather a community of Friends to bring us back to the One who can speak to our condition?
I appreciate your commitment to uphold a loving gift of prophecy which has been so critical to our particular Quaker mission both within our own community and in the wider world. Your piece reminds me that the original and most seductive human sin is the “eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil;” that desire to be God like and make clear, certain, judgements and then unlovingly divide humanity into the sheep and the goats based on this dogmatic lens that casts out love.
Our faith tradition speaks of witness and testimony to God’s word, not certainty and judgment. With respect to justice issues, the prophet Micah captured this uncertainty well in the answer to the query: “What does the Lord require? Do justice, love mercy and walk humbly with our God.” We all know from history the consequences of grasping a judgmental justice without the balance of mercy and humility.
What you describe seems to be an ancient story of church hierarchy avoiding an open discernment process that might threaten comfortable certainty. Thanks again for doing what the prophets have always done- speaking truth to power with loving humility and a desire to simply engage in a dance of justice, mercy and humility leading to the peaceable kingdom.
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Hi Adria. I’m the Communications Director for NYYM, Sarah Way. This is not an official response from NYYM (whatever that would look like) and is just from me, a person. We both attended a weekend on Quaker Outreach held by Arlene and Robin in NJ a few years ago. I’ve met you and I like and respect you greatly. I think you’re an amazing writer.
I was alerted to this post when a Friend from my local meeting forwarded it to all of the members of local meetings’ Ministry & Counsels in the yearly meeting and urged them to read it. It’s perhaps unnecessary to say that I was hurt by this post, which came at the end of a very difficult year of service to NYYM. I decided to write this response after all this time because I have grown to believe that the Quaker tendency to avoid conflict at all costs is actively harming us as a religious body. Pretending that hurt doesn’t exist helps no one.
I don’t want to speak on the first two items you discuss — the anti-racism statement and the sign-on to the “urgent call” — because I wasn’t directly involved with either. However the third thing you list — the thing that, according to your post, tips this series of events into “enemy action” — was something that was independently done by me alone.
I edit the weekly email newsletter for NYYM. In it, I share events, news, job opportunities, grants, etc., with Friends on our yearly meeting email list. I include items from monthly and quarterly meetings, yearly meeting committees, Quaker retreat centers, and Quaker organizations with which NYYM has an affiliation. An affiliation can mean that NYYM is a part of the organization (like FGC or FWCC or FUM) or that NYYM has a recognized representative to the organization (like Quaker Earthcare Witness, which is a nationwide network of Friends and not a NYYM committee: https://quakerearthcare.org/about-us/.)
The steering committee of QEW sent out an email linking to the “Statement on Reproductive Services” from that “population control” group. I believe QEW said that they supported the statement and asked other Quaker groups to consider the statement for themselves. That’s what I put in the newsletter — a request from a Quaker organization to consider a statement. It was a news item, not an editorial, and not a declaration of support from the yearly meeting.
I have been serving the yearly meeting as a part-time staff member for about five years now. My focus is on serving the members of the yearly meeting in any way I can. We have Friends who are more focused on social/environmental justice issues and we have Friends that are more focused on our core religious beliefs. We have Friends who are Jesus-centric and we have non-theists. I try, consciously, to serve everyone. I worship on how best to do that. I do not think that my actions are guided by “the Deceiver” or that I am an agent of “the Adversary.”
You disagree with the statement endorsed by QEW. They requested responses. Please respond to them.
And please feel free to email me to discuss this further — my personal email address is attached to my WordPress account. We can talk on the phone, too, if you want. Thanks for reading.
Thank you so So *SO* much for your response. I agree 100% that nobody is served when hard or uncomfortable feelings are ignored or hand-waved away. When that happens, there is no room for understanding or reconciliation, but only for alienation, in the best case, or simmering resentment and growing hostility, in the worst. So I can’t say enough how much I appreciate your reaching out, even though I’m trying in my asterisks-and-all-caps way to express it.
I think there are four things I would say in response to what you’ve shared.
First – I’m so sorry that you’ve been carrying this for so long. It can be such a burden to feel misjudged or maligned, particularly in a public forum, and I hope this post hasn’t been occupying too much of your mental real estate. But I also know how things can sit and grow inside of us, so that hope might be in vain, and I understand that too.
Second, I think I may have been unclear in my writing – not to discredit your praise of it, which I deeply, deeply appreciate. When I wrote about my feelings about “a committee dedicated to protecting all of creation was calling on Friends to speak forcefully for the unrestricted right to abort developing humans” or the fact that meetings are being asked to “consider issuing a statement of support,” I should have been more clear that the source of my discouragement and distress was grounded in the actions of Quaker Earthcare Witness, not in your actions. It was, as I understand it, QEW that was lifting up the request that meetings consider a statement of support for the IUSSP statement, not you or NYYM.
I don’t imagine and have never imagined that your publishing something in the Spark was an endorsement or recommendation. You have a job, which is to share what’s going on of relevance to Friends in our YM. Some of what you share you might find encouraging, some of what you share you might find interesting and some of what you share you might find boring or silly – but nevertheless of interest to NYYM Friends. And if you did anything else – such as curating the newsletter to suit your individual theology or worldview, instead of sharing any news that is relevant to our yearly meeting body as a whole – you would be betraying your duty to your position and to the YM. I am deeply, deeply sorry that I did not make it clearer and that I, through my words, have added to the very heavy burden of supporting our yearly meeting as you do. That was never my intent or my thought at any time, and I *am* sorry.
Third, I will say that a friend of mine, who shares my concerns about the QEW statement, did reach out to them to express our thoughts. They pointed to a previously published document, which was beautifully drafted, about the various concerns and ways of thinking about the issue of abortion through a spiritual lens. A deep sensitivity and the eternal savor of Truth were present in that document. They were notably absent from this one. And that’s a BIG problem. The world doesn’t need another political interest group, and the Religious Society of Friends isn’t called to be one. Sometimes we are called to engage corporately in the world’s politics, but that should be the result of God’s call, not our own individual opinions or convictions, however deeply held.
Which brings me to my final point: nobody *ever* thinks they are being used by the Deceiver. Nobody *ever* thinks they are an agent of the Adversary. I could tell you some views and opinions I had fifteen years ago that were absolutely demonic, and many much more recent ones that were simply selfish and wrongheaded. And I’m sure that I still have plenty, which hopefully will become clearer in time. What I would like for myself in such moments is what I try – obviously imperfectly! – to offer others: the truth as best as I can articulate it, with as much compassion as I can muster and with the humility of someone who knows what it is to try hard to do the right thing and to fail spectacularly nonetheless.
Thanks again for commenting, Sarah. You provide such an important service to our yearly meeting. Blessings on you and on your faithful service, Friend.